Delayed recovery and host specialization may spell disaster for coral-fish mutualism

Publication Name

Ecology and Evolution


Mutualisms are prevalent in many ecosystems, yet little is known about how symbioses are affected by ecological pressures. Here, we show delayed recovery for 13 coral-dwelling goby fishes (genus Gobiodon) compared with their host Acropora corals following four consecutive cyclones and heatwaves. While corals became twice as abundant in 3 years postdisturbances, gobies were only half as abundant relative to predisturbances and half of the goby species disappeared. Although gobies primarily occupied one coral species in greater abundance predisturbances, surviving goby species shifted hosts to newly abundant coral species when their previously occupied hosts became rare postdisturbances. As host specialization is key for goby fitness, shifting hosts may have negative fitness consequences for gobies and corals alike and affect their survival in response to environmental changes. Our study is an early sign that mutualistic partners may not recover similarly from multiple disturbances, and that goby host plasticity, while potentially detrimental, may be the only possibility for early recovery.

Open Access Status

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Article Number


Funding Sponsor

Hermon Slade Foundation



Link to publisher version (DOI)